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What Were You Doing the Day JFK Died?

Updated on July 24, 2011

Friday's News

All Was Normal

A Remembrance

My first thought after asking that question is to wonder how many Hub Pages readers are old enough to remember that event. I may be writing for a small audience.

It was a normal Friday at school for this 11th grader. Being in southern California, the weather was neither especially hot nor cold. There were no special activities on campus that day; all was routine until lunchtime.

During lunch comments began to circulate that the president had been shot. Many of the students I knew didn’t pay much attention to what we heard. We figured it was another one of those rumors someone starts just for the fun of getting people excited and seeing how many would believe it. After all, this was an era when wacky antics were popular; like the radio station announcers who started a rumor that the nation was about to experience a shortage of toilet paper just to see if they could get lots of people to make a run on tp supplies. (It worked, by the way; many stores were sold out of toilet paper within a day or so.)

It was after lunch, when everyone was back in class, that our principal made an announcement over the PA system. It was true. The president had been shot. I am not sure that it was known yet at that time that he had died, but by the end of the day we knew.

I had a job delivering the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, an afternoon newspaper. This was one those times when the Herald could scoop the LA Times, since it was a morning paper. I had a special sense of purpose as I delivered the papers that day.

Much happened quickly after that. By Saturday morning President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared that Monday, November 25 would be a national day of mourning. Because of that proclamation, Saturday’s paper announced that all schools—“city, county, and parochial”—would be closed on Monday. It said that all schools were “ordered to be closed,” which was apparently readily accepted, though I doubt that County Schools Superintendent C. C. Trillingham actually had legal authority to enforce closing of private schools. Of course it would not have been good PR for any schools to go against the order.

In light of today’s 24/7 approach to retailing, it is interesting to note that all major department stores across the country also decided to close on Monday. According to the Herald, “almost every other event scheduled for the weekend, civic, social and athletic was postponed.” The LA Lakers Saturday game was postponed, and “all Big Six Conference games on the West Coast, including the big USC-UCLA game today, were postponed for one week.”

In contrast, professional football went on. On Monday Melvin Durslag was wondering “where dramatization ends and simple respect begins when noting that the full schedule of professional football played yesterday while the late President lay in state.” He was especially critical of the National Football League, but also had these thoughts about the fans, “The fact that the games throughout the National League were well-attended points up our original concern about people so self-absorbed, so coddled and so emotionally misanthropic that they are unable to forego little pleasures at a time that calls for at least a modicum of reverence.” Now to be fair, I should mention that the American flags at the LA Coliseum were flying at half-mast. And as an aside, perhaps because I am a teacher, I find it interesting to note that Mr. Durslag seemed to have a much broader vocabulary and command of words than most reporters of today.

I can’t leave the subject of football, though, without including this: Philadelphia Eagles end Pete Retzlaff said that, “none of the players actually wanted to play but felt they had to obey the orders of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.” So the Eagles’ players decided to each give $50 of their salary to the family of a Dallas policeman who was killed by Oswald on Friday. Retzlaff said, “It gave us some incentive (to play the game).”

ABC, CBS, and NBC (which at that time meant nearly all stations) cancelled all radio and TV “entertainment” shows until after the funeral. Even more remarkable by today’s standards was the elimination media advertising. The Herald reported that, “all regularly scheduled programs for the weekend will be off and no commercials will be aired.”

The term “martyr” was used by nearly every public figure who spoke about JFK. Publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr. wrote an editorial in which he urged Congress act without delay to “honor the late President Kennedy’s widow with the highest award it is possible for this country to confer upon a woman.”

By Saturday morning the Associated Press was already speculating on whether LBJ would keep the Kennedy cabinet as his own, noting that Harry S Truman replaced 7 of 10 cabinet members when he took office after the death of FDR.

Dallas police had captured, arrested, and charged Lee Harvey Oswald very quickly. Jack Ruby dispensed with Oswald almost as quickly. And speaking of quickly, by Monday afternoon it was all over. Within the space of about three days, we had gone from complacency to chaos, to quiet contemplation and mourning, and back to business. By Monday afternoon, the funeral was over. Leaders of 53 nations had managed to arrive and join procession. Tuesday we carried on with our lives.

By the way, author Aldous Huxley also died on Friday, November 22. At any other time this might have been given a little more press, but the Saturday Herald gave it about nine column inches on page 12.

Early Saturday morning, a fire in an Ohio “Home for the Aged” killed 60 people. This got a little more space than the death of Huxley, and rated a position at the top of page 7.

Meanwhile, Ann Landers was advising one letter writer to mind her own business. Another writer was concerned about her adopted daughter. The mother said she looked a lot like the boy she was dating, who was also adopted. She was afraid that they might be brother and sister.


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